Winnipeg Police Service Chief Devon Clunis was vacationing in Florida late last March when he read something I'd written that caught his attention.
The column told the story of a Grade 6 class at Brock Corydon School, where students researched informative pro-Winnipeg topics that started with the letter C. Everything from charity and conservation to less likely candidates such as climate and city hall.
Yes, cops, too.
Clunis was so impressed with their message and their teacher, Susan Pereles, that when he returned to work he had his secretary set up a visit with the class. The date was set: May 7 at 10 a.m. The weeks whisked by. Then, on May 6 -- the day before he was supposed to meet with the kids -- something happened. Clunis called a news conference in the wake of a weekend shooting death outside a downtown nightclub. He announced a duty inspector and some members of the police call centre had been placed on administrative leave pending an internal inquiry into why a 911 call warning of trouble at the nightclub had been cancelled prior to 23-year-old Rustom Vito Paclipan being killed.
Given those circumstances, I recall wondering at the time whether Clunis would keep his commitment to meet with the students. But the next morning, right on schedule, the chief of police appeared alone at the school, toting a bag full of 24 WPS "Building Relationships" water bottles -- one for each student -- plus a surprise for their teacher.
Even before he presented Pereles with what turned out to be an unexpected honour, she expressed surprise at how gentle he was, and how he had the presence of a "rock star."
Or so she told me when I visited Wednesday, a week after Clunis had been there. Like me, Pereles had wondered if he would keep his commitment given what he had been dealing with just a day earlier, and she asked him about that when he arrived.
"He said, 'No, this is important. The children are important. Community is important.' "
Clunis also acknowledged something else about the importance of the visit, given what he had to announce the day before: "This is the best part of my day right now."
With that, Clunis began with his surprise for Pereles: a certificate of appreciation from the Winnipeg Police Service and the chief of police.
It read: "In recognition of inspiring a love of Winnipeg in your students." The acknowledgment made Pereles weep. As would the story the chief of police shared with the children about his own experience in Grade 6.
"Who can repeat it without crying?" Pereles asked the class.
Young Karina Tehler volunteered to tell the story as she recalled it.
"He moved from Jamaica to a new school and Winnipeg," Karina began. "And nobody would believe in him. But there was this teacher, Mrs. Hanna.
And the teacher said, "Come every morning one hour earlier," and she'll help him with his studies. So he came every morning. Eventually he got better and better. And he was the best student in the class from being the worst student in the class. And that made a big impact on his life. And I think it was a couple of years ago and he wanted to see his old teacher again, Mrs. Hanna. But someone told him she passed away. But then a couple of months later someone called him and said Mrs. Hanna is in the hospital. She had cancer or something. And he walks in to see her..."
Pereles finished the story for Karina. "He said to her, 'Do you remember a little boy in Grade 6, Devon Clunis?' And she looked at him and said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'I pray that he will be the chief of police.' "
Between that visit -- and his being named chief in the late fall of 2012 -- Mrs. Hanna died. And, in tribute to her, he related the same story when he was sworn in.
The chief's presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session. Pereles recalled the first one the kids had for him.
" 'Do you find your job stressful?' "
"And he said, 'This week, yes.' "
Later Wednesday afternoon I spoke with Clunis on the phone. He told me why he kept his appointment at Brock Corydon School.
"I was not going to disappoint the kids."
I told him what impressed me even more: how he stepped forward and publicly faced up to the 911 inquiry when he could have issued a news release. Clunis didn't say this in response, but I think I can say it for him: Devon Clunis doesn't just want to be a good police chief, he wants to be the best we've ever had.
Which reminds me, here's something that shouldn't surprise you.
The kids at Brock Corydon have added another positive Winnipeg C word to their list: chief of police.